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Archaeologists: Mayans were green builders

Team excavating vast ancient city in Belize uses NASA LiDAR technology and reveals a society of rooftop urban agriculture.

Aerial photo of a Mayan structure already excavated by the Caracol Archaeological Project.
UCF Anthropology/

Archeologists and NASA scientists have "unearthed" a complete ancient Mayan city that employed a system of green urban architecture, the group announced Tuesday.

"The NASA technology aboard the Cessna saw beyond the rain forest and detected thousands of new structures, 11 new causeways, tens of thousands of agricultural terraces and many hidden caves--results beyond anyone's imagination," the group said in a statement.

The project was led by a husband and wife archaeological team from the University of Central Florida who have been in Belize manually excavating the ancient Mayan city of Caracol out from under dense jungle overgrowth and earth for more than 25 years.

Diane Chase, vice provost and a Pegasus Professor at UNC , and her husband, Arlen Chase, chair of the Department of Anthropology at UNC, are co-directors of  the Caracol Archeological Project. In their 25 years of research, along with the help of various assistants and machetes,  they had managed to map out about nine miles of the city. But using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology in conjunction with NASA, they have now mapped about 77 miles of the ancient Mayan city of Caracol in about four weeks.

The LiDAR discoveries are a major breakthrough for the Caracol Archaeological Project The urban center of Caracol is believed to have supported a population of about 140,000 people during the Maya Classic era (A.D. 250 to 950) through elaborate city planning and urban farming.

Topography map of Caracol created with LiDAR data. Caracol Archaeological Project

Using LiDAR built into a Cessna 337, a team from NASA conducted flights over the dense jungle area. LiDAR essentially uses laser beams to send out pulses, and take measurements of their return, in order to see past obstacles--in this case the dense foliage of a tropical forest--to create an accurate topography. The flights done over four days took about 24 hours total. The data was then analyzed and rendered into a 3D map over three weeks.

The fact that the Mayans employed an system of agricultural terraced roofs is just one of the first things the archaeologists noticed from an initial analysis.

"The ancient Maya designed and maintained sustainable cities long before 'building green' became a modern term," said Diane Chase, co-director of the Caracol Archaeological Project.

The group said it expects to find a treasure trove of information about the Mayan empire as the data collected by the LiDAR missions are further analyzed.